Separate but unequal: the sad fate of Aboriginal heritage in Western Australia


Tod Jones, Curtin University

There is systemic discrimination against Aboriginal heritage in Western Australia. This does not come from a racist administrator somewhere who hates Aboriginal heritage, but from the evolution of the institutions, rules and conventions that make up cultural heritage management.

Let me explain why.

Western Australia manages the heritage sites of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal sites through different institutional channels, under different laws. This system is now providing much higher levels of protection for non-Aboriginal heritage.

There are several obvious imbalances. Should the Aboriginal Heritage Amendment bill that’s currently before parliament be passed, the maximum penalty for an individual illegally disturbing a non-Aboriginal heritage site will be A$1 million and two-years imprisonment, but for an Aboriginal site it will be A$100,000 and 12 months imprisonment, doubled on a second offence (it is currently A$20,000 and imprisonment for nine months, increasing to A$40,000 and two years for a second offense).

Less obviously, since Colin Barnett’s government took office in 2008 it has gradually reduced protection by reinterpreting definitions within the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 to severely curtail the number of new sites. To date, some 1,262 sites have been blocked from gaining protection.

In 2012 the definition of “sacred” was reinterpreted to only include sites “devoted to a religious use rather than a place subject to mythological story, song or belief” – leading to the deregistration of 35 sites. This was found earlier this year to be a “misconstruction” by Justice John Chaney in the Supreme Court of Western Australia. Dreamtime stories have long been and continue to be considered sacred to Aboriginal people.

Furthermore, a recent report by UWA archaeologists indicates that more than 3,000 Aboriginal heritage sites have lost registration status as part of sweeping changes in classifications in the Aboriginal Heritage Register.

At no stage have Aboriginal custodians been notified about the changing status of their heritage.

Larrkardiy, a boab tree also known as The Prison Tree, is protected under the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972.
sunphlo, CC BY-NC

Separate and unequal protection

For many years Aboriginal heritage has been protected through the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972. Non-Aboriginal heritage gained greater protection than Aboriginal heritage when the Heritage of Western Australia Act 1990 came into law. Together, these two acts are the legal basis for Western Australia’s system of cultural heritage management. They have very different origins and historical arcs.

The Heritage of Western Australia Act was the result of 30 years of lobbying by Western Australians who were concerned about the destruction of important heritage starting in the 1950s. Due to its incorporation into the Planning and Development Act 2005 and the obligations it places on local government, it is well integrated into the Western Australian planning system.

Currently the government is pursuing amendments to the Heritage of Western Australia Act to provide greater transparency in decision-making, clarify terminology and create a new repair order power.

The second channel of cultural heritage protection, the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972, was created after outcry in 1969, when a prospector began mining and selling sacred stones from the Weebo site.

An Aboriginal Stone tool (chert knife), discovered in excavations at the Djadjiling rock shelter at a Pilbara mine site in Western Australia.
Ho New

Despite being celebrated, the Aboriginal Heritage Act has never provided complete protection from resource extraction. In 1980, Western Australia Premier Charles Court controversially gave police protection to a convoy of oil drilling rigs, which forced their way onto sacred land.

An independent body of experts established by the Act, the Aboriginal Cultural Materials Committee, may consider applications to disturb heritage.

Between 2001 and 2007, 488 applications were considered and permission to disturb heritage given 480 times.

The Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 is not mentioned in the Planning and Development Act 2005 and is less integrated into Western Australia’s planning system. Aboriginal heritage is generally not listed on local government municipal inventories of heritage and most local governments consider the protection of Aboriginal heritage a matter between a developer and the State government.

Proposed amendments to the Aboriginal Heritage Act

The Aboriginal Heritage Amendment Bill 2014, currently before parliament, has drawn criticism from Western Australia member for parliament Robin Chapple, who, amongst many others, has argued the changes will decrease transparency in decision making and democratic oversight.

The key provisions give the chief executive officer of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs the power to declare “there is no Aboriginal site on the land”.

Extraordinarily, the proposed amendments would allow developers to appeal if their applications are rejected, but make no provision for Aboriginal custodians to appeal the CEO’s decision.

The proposed amendments do not address the most glaring inequalities in the dual systems. In addition to the heavier penalties for illegally disturbing non-Aboriginal heritage sites, non-Aboriginal heritage is managed by the Heritage Council in concert with local government and planning authorities, while Aboriginal heritage is managed by a small section within the Department of Aboriginal Affairs.

Perhaps most significantly, the end of Aboriginal use or presence of non-Aboriginal use at an important archaeological site could potentially bring it under the Heritage of Western Australia Act. This would paradoxically give it a higher level of protection and management.

This goes against Australia’s guiding heritage principles that place great emphasis on continued use.

Changing understandings, changing systems

The first step towards a fairer system is a new understanding of where we Western Australians live. Western Australia has enjoyed at least 50,000 years of Aboriginal inhabitation. We need to recognise that Aboriginal connection and heritage is ongoing and will continue to exist within our cities, our suburbs, our towns, our parks, our yards and our farms.

We need a system of cultural heritage management able to cope with this recognition.

Recognition and management of this heritage needs to be, through an inclusive planning process, integrated into the a single system. With amendments to both acts now before the Western Australian parliament, now is the time to exert political pressure.

The status quo is now so unequal that it is untenable. The only solution is a holistic and inclusive approach to Western Australia’s system of cultural heritage management.


Tod will be on hand for an Author Q&A between 11am and noon WST on Tuesday, December 8, 2015. Post your questions in the comments section below.

The Conversation

Tod Jones, Senior Lecturer, Human Geography, Curtin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Advertisements

Sea level rise is real – which is why we need to retreat from unrealistic advice


Mark Gibbs, Queensland University of Technology

Coastal communities around the world are being increasingly exposed to the hazards of rising sea levels, with global sea levels found to be rising faster over the past two decades than for the bulk of the 20th century.

But managing the impacts of rising seas for some communities is being made more difficult by the actions of governments, homeowners – and even some well-intentioned climate adaptation practitioners.

Coastal adaptation policies usually carry political risk. One of the main risks is when communities end up divided between those wanting a response to the growing risks of coastal flooding, and those more concerned about how their own property values or insurance premiums might be hit in the short-term by such action. For some, the biggest threat is seen to be from sea level rise adaptation policies rather than sea level rise itself.

Some organisations and governments have side-stepped the political risk by commissioning or preparing adaptation plans – but then not implementing them.

A colleague of mine describes this as the “plan and forget” approach to coastal adaptation. It’s all too common, not only here in Australia but internationally. And it can be worse than completely ignoring the risk, because local communities are given the impression that the risk is being managed, when in fact it is not.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Catalyst program examines past and future sea level rise.

‘The road to hell is paved with good intentions’

Coastal adaptation researchers and practitioners (and I’m one of them) must reconsider some of the common recommendations typically contained in coastal adaptation studies.

In my experience, well-intentioned but poorly considered recommendations – such as advocating for highly urbanised city centres to be relocated inland – prevent many adaptation studies being implemented.

Relocating buildings and other built infrastructure further away from the coast to reduce or eliminate the risk of flooding might sound like a sensible, long-term option, and indeed it is in some cases.

But too often, the advice given to “retreat” or relocate established, highly built-up city blocks makes little economic or practical sense. Such advice can be inconsistent with well-established engineering disaster risk reduction frameworks such as Engineers Australia’s Climate Change Adaptation Guidelines in Coastal Management and Planning.

Much to the chagrin of many in the coastal adaptation science community, cities and owners of major coastal facilities around the world are voting with their feet – largely rejecting coastal retreat recommendations in favour of coastal protection.

Major cities choosing defence, not retreat

New York is perhaps the best example of governments and individuals alike choosing protection rather than retreat.

In October 2012, Hurricane Sandy left behind a trail of destruction of more than US$71 billion in the United States. In New York alone, 43 people were killed.

In June 2013, then Mayor Mike Bloomberg said rising temperatures and sea levels were only making it harder to defend New York, warning:

We expect that by mid-century up to one-quarter of all of New York City’s land area, where 800,000 residents live today, will be in the floodplain. If we do nothing, more than 40 miles of our waterfront could see flooding on a regular basis, just during normal high tides.

Yet even after acknowledging that threat, New York’s response wasn’t to retreat. Instead, the mayor launched a US$20 billion plan to protect the city with more flood walls, stronger infrastructure and renovated buildings. As that “Stronger, More Resilient New York” plan declared:

We can fight for and rebuild what was lost, fortify the shoreline,
and develop waterfront areas for the benefit of all New Yorkers. The city cannot, and will not, retreat.

Similarly, none of the winners of Rebuild By Design – an international competition to make New York and surrounding regions more resilient to coastal inundation – focused on retreat strategies. In fact, some involve intensifying urban areas that were under water during Hurricane Sandy.

In the worst hit areas, even when given the choice of a state buy-out scheme relatively few New Yorkers chose to leave.

PBS Newshour looks at how New York and other world cities can better protect against rising seas and storm surges.

Although not directly related to climate change, the Japanese response to the devastating 2011 tsunami is another telling example.

There, some residents did choose to relocate to higher ground. However, the government did not relocate major facilities inland, including the Fukushima nuclear facility. Instead, Japan will spend US$6.8 billion to form a 400-kilometre-long chain of sea walls, towering up to four storeys high in some places.

In Melbourne, Australia, four local councils from the Association of Bayside Municipalities worked on the science-based Port Phillip Bay Coastal Adaptation Pathways Project to systematically identify the most effective adaptation responses. That project highlighted the effectiveness of accommodating and reducing flooding through established engineering approaches.

For example, the project concluded that while the popular Southbank waterfront in the City of Melbourne is likely to see even more common and extreme flooding in the coming decades, “retreat is not necessary”.

The Yarra River flows through the heart of Melbourne, in Australia, with Southbank on the left.
R Reeve/Flicker, CC BY-ND

More practical advice is crucial for greater action

Coastal adaptation studies and plans need to be based on practical, defensible and implementable recommendations.

That means climate adaptation practitioners need to refrain from recommending that major urbanised coastal centres be relocated further inland in coming decades, unless that really is the only viable option.

Instead, I think we can achieve more by concentrating more on how lower- and medium-density coastal communities can adapt to higher sea levels. This is a more challenging problem, as economic analyses can produce very different recommendations depending on which so-called “externalities” are included or left out in the analysis.

On the same note, adaptation studies that make recommendations without considering the impacts to present-day home-owners, or how adaptation plans are financed, can also be unhelpful.

Florida, USA, photographed from space – one of many highly urbanised coastal areas around the world needing to adapt to rising seas.
NASA

Good adaptation strategies need to acknowledge the real political risks involved with any change involving people and property. Along with making recommendations, they also need to lay out an implementation plan showing how individual and community concerns will be taken into account.

So far the climate models have done a good job in estimating the likely future sea levels. The same cannot be said for our adaptation responses.

But if you’re looking for examples of how we can be better prepared for growing sea level risks, initiatives such as the Port Phillip Bay Coastal Adaptation Pathways Project and the Queensland Climate Adaptation Strategy (currently under development) seem to be heading in the right direction.

* Do you have a question about how we can plan for or learn to live with rising sea levels? Mark Gibbs will be answering your questions at 1-2pm AEDT/12pm-1pm AEST today (Friday December 4).

The Conversation

Mark Gibbs, Director: Knowledge to innovation, Queensland University of Technology

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.